“One Almighty is more than many mighties.”
–William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1662/2002), 35.
These are my favorite books that I read in 2017. Better late than never. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
My Top 12:
1. Christ Alone / Stephen Wellum
My favorite book this year was a beautiful volume on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Wellum argues convincingly that our understanding of who Jesus is and what He does must be developed from Scripture and its entire storyline. This is clearly written, exegetical theology at its finest.
There are many good things in life which legitimately demand our attention. Yet, it is far too easy to forget who is central to everything, namely our Lord Jesus. Given who our Lord is as God the Son incarnate; given what He has done for us as our new covenant head and incomparable Redeemer; given the absolute necessity of His work; given that He has represented us in obedient life and stood in our place in substitutionary death to pay for our sin and accomplish our eternal salvation; given that He is the all-sufficient Savior who meets all of our needs as our great prophet, priest, and king; given all of this, our only reasonable response is to submit ourselves to Him in complete trust, confidence, love, joy, worship, and obedience. He demands and deserves nothing less. (312)
2. How To Understand And Apply The New Testament / Andrew Naselli
There are lots of books that seek to explain how to interpret and apply the Bible. But I’d wager this is the only one in which you’ll find references to B.B. Warfield, D.A. Carson, Harry Potter, and Lebron James. Naselli is a fun and faithful guide who helped me look at the Book more carefully and responsibly. Chapter 5 on tracing the logical argument of a passage by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing is worth the price of the book.
Don’t miss the whole point of exegesis. It’s to know and worship God. So I pray that this book will help you exegete the text in a way that spreads a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Exegesis and theology are thrilling because they help you know and worship God. And only God satisfies. You most glorify God when He most satisfies you. He’s better than sex and shopping and new iPhones and hot pizza and chocolate and money and power and anything else your heart may crave. God reigns, saves, and satisfies through covenant for His glory in Christ. That is what you get to see from so many angles when you look at the Book. And when you understand exegesis and theology better, the praise gets richer. So why wouldn’t you look at the Book? (333)
3. Calvin’s Company of Pastors / Scott Manetsch
This book provides “a systematic study of Geneva’s ministers, their pastoral theology, and practical ministry activities during nearly three-quarters of a century from 1536 to 1609,” (8). Manetsch’s meticulous research is brimming with Reformational wisdom and includes one of the best quotes on heaven that I’ve ever read.
4. The Lord’s Prayer / Thomas Watson
When I read Thomas Watson, I often think: “I should read more Thomas Watson.” He’s the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. Short, pithy, and heart-searching:
“Affliction can hurt a man only while he is living, but sin hurts him when he is dead.” (309)
“Our Saviour will have us pray, ‘Give us bread this day,’ to teach us to live every day as if it were our last.” (202)
“God’s glory is as dear to a saint as his own salvation. And that this glory may be promoted he endeavors the conversion of souls.” (44)
“To forgive sin, is for God to cast our sins into the depths of the sea. ‘Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea,’ (Micah 7:19). This implies God’s burying them out of sight, that they shall not rise up in judgment against us. God will throw them in, not as cork that riseth again, but as lead that sinks to the bottom.” (215)
“The pearl of price, the Lord Jesus, is the quintessence of all good things. To give us Christ is more than if God had given us all the world. He can make more worlds, but He has no more Christs to bestow.” (206)
“Here is comfort for such as can, upon good grounds, call God ‘Father.’ There is more sweetness in this word ‘Father’ than if we had ten thousand worlds.” (15)
You can you see why I plan to mine the riches of Watson’s Body of Divinity in 2018.
5. Majesty in Misery, Vol. 3 / Charles Spurgeon
I read Spurgeon because he consistently leaves me staggered by the glory and the grace of Jesus Christ. This volume is the third in a trilogy of sermons focusing on the passion of the Christ. In a sermon entitled “Christ’s Dying Words For His Church,” Spurgeon writes:
“It appears to me, that if Christ finished the work for us, He will finish the work in us.” (209)
Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve not even come close to reading all that Spurgeon wrote. I’m not sure anyone actually has. But I’ve realized that the man could write on just about anything and make it interesting. Even mosquitoes! But this much I know: Spurgeon on the cross of Christ is not to be missed.
6. All That Is In God / James Dolezal
God is simple. That is, God isn’t compounded or made up of parts. He’s not the sum of His parts. God’s attributes, His excellencies, are identical with His essence. God isn’t just loving; He is love (1 John 4:8). God isn’t just holy; He is holiness (1 John 1:5). This is what classical Christian theism teaches. Dolezal is concerned by recent denials of this vital truth by advocates of theistic mutualism: “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” This book on God’s simplicity isn’t simple. It’s what C.S. Lewis called “a tough bit of theology.” But, I believe if you work your way through it carefully and prayerfully, then you’ll find that your heart sings unbidden before the only Sovereign, the immortal God who is the great I AM.
7. God Is / Mark Jones
A few years ago, Mark Jones penned a delightful book called Knowing Christ. Jones does something similar in this volume where he focuses his exegetical attention on God’s attributes. In 27 brief chapters, Jones glories in the God who is Triune, simple, Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, independent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, Yahweh, blessed, glorious, majestic, sovereign, love, good, patient, merciful, wise, holy, faithful, gracious, just, angry, and anthropomorphic. This book is worth reading simply for all the amazing citations from Puritans like Stephen Charnock and John Owen and Thomas Watson.
8. The Story of Scripture / Matthew Emerson
I spent June 2016 – June 2017 doing a deep dive in several biblical theology volumes as research for a writing project. Many books in this field are rich but technical and advanced. For example, one book that’s served me well while preaching through the Gospel according to Mark has been Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark by Rikki Watts. It’s illuminating but also rather thick at times. So when I come across a book of biblical theology that’s clearly written, worshipful, accessible, and grounded and governed by the biblical text, I’m eager to share it with others. Matthew Emerson’s new book is just that. I knew it was going to be an outstanding work even before I finished reading the acknowledgements:
And I am eternally and fundamentally grateful to our Triune God, without whom I would still be blind to the truths of Scripture and deaf to its call to repent and believe in the incarnate, crucified-and-resurrected Son of God. I would be wandering in a story of my own making, a story without meaning and point. Instead, because of the graciousness of God in Christ, I am by the power of his Spirit finding my place in his story, the story of the world that finds its center in the person and work of Jesus.
Emerson tells the Story, and he tells it quite well. See for yourself.
9. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel / Ray Ortlund
It’s been said before that the Bible begins (Genesis 2) and ends (Revelation 19) with a wedding. Ray Ortlund humbly and beautifully unpacks the meaning of marriage in his typical Gospel-centered way.
Marriage is not a human invention; it is a divine revelation. Its design never was our own made-up arrangement of infinite malleability. It was given to us, at the beginning of all things, as a brightly shining fixity of eternal significance. We might not always live up to its true grandeur. None of us does so perfectly. But we have no right to redefine it, and we have every reason to revere it. Only the Bible imparts to us a vision of marriage so transcendent and glorious, far beyond human variation and even human failure. Marriage is of God and reveals a wonderful truth about God. And we have no right to change the face of God in the world. All we can rightly do is receive what God has revealed with gladness and humility. (11)
10. Missions / Andy Johnson
This wise 9Marks volume wins “The Book I’ve Given Away Most to My Congregation in 2017 Award.” The strength of this little book lies in the confidence it produces in Christ’s unhindered gospel and in His unstoppable mission:
We should have confidence because we know the mission will not fail. We may fail in our faithfulness, but God will not fail in His mission. Christ will have the nations for His inheritance. Frantic speculation and guilt are weak motivators compared with the truth of God’s unstoppable plan to rescue every child for whom Christ died. Christ will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him, and God has chosen to use us– in countless local churches– as the agents of His gospel triumph. (120)
I’m grateful to God for help in thinking through the questions related to technology and family and Christian discipleship. Both Andy Crouch and Tony Reinke have written excellent books that serve the the church in these areas. The scope of Crouch’s volume is more broad, while Reinke’s is more narrow. Yet both are hugely helpful. Crouch notes:
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.
Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awefilled hours when our children were ill middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.
Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess. (20-21)
Reinke rightly observes that “technology tends to feed our vanity and kill our wonder.” (207-208) Does this mean you should you trade in your smartphone for a dumbphone? Maybe. Reinke concludes his volume with several helpful diagnostic questions:
1. What does my smartphone cost me per year if I add up the price of the device, insurance protection, covers and cases, and monthly service?
2. Do I need mobile web access to fulfill my calling in vocation or ministry?
3. Is texting essential to my care for others? Do those texts need to be seen in real time? And is the smartphone the only way to do it?
4. Do I need mobile web access to legitimately serve others?
5. Do I need mobile web access to navigate unfamiliar cities? Is the device an essential part of my travels?
6. Do I need my smartphone to take advantage of coupons in stores? How much money would I save instead without a smartphone data plan?
7. Can my web access wait? Is the convenience of mobile web access something I can functionally replace with structured time at a laptop or desktop computer later?
8. Can I get along just as well with a dumbphone, a WiFi hotspot, an iPod, or a tablet?
9. Can I listen to audio and podcasts in other ways (through an iPod, for example)?
10. Have I simply grown addicted to my phone? If so, can the problem be solved with moderation, or do I need to just cut it off?
11. Do the mobile lures of my phone insulate me from people and real needs around me?
12. Do I want my kids to see me gazing at a handheld screen so much as they grow up? What does this habit project to them and to others around me? (197-198)
These two books helped me rethink the way I use my iPhone and the ways I use/don’t use social media. They’ve produced good conversations with my bride this year and, I’m sure, these conversations will continue into 2018. I’m grateful to God for both of these brothers and for their books.
Honorable Mention: The Bible Project Coffee Table Book / The Bible Project
The book my three children enjoyed the most this year was definitely this labor of love from the good folks at The Bible Project. This book is spectacular. Imagine having a literary diagram and written summary of every book in Scripture. It’s a visual learner’s dream come true. If you’ve been helped at all by their Read Scripture videos, consider getting a copy of the print version of this series.
My Next 12:
13. Deep Work / Cal Newport
Cal Newport is a best-selling author. He’s a millennial. He’s an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. And yet he doesn’t have any social media accounts. Why? Because Newport is committed to deep work, which he defines as follows: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (3) Newport argues persuasively that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. His chapter on quitting social media is the most provocative in the book. If you want a taste of Newport’s message, watch his TedTalk on the subject.
David Grann is one of my favorite investigative feature writers from The New Yorker. In 2004, he wrote a piece about those who search for the mysterious giant squid entitled “The Squid Hunters.” I’ve been a huge fan ever since. His other famous long-reads include:
You can find other interesting examples of his work in the collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. But if you’re only going to read one thing by Grann, it should be Killers of the Flower Moon. He weaves a tragic and disturbing tale of greed, racism, deceit, murder, and justice:
In the early twentieth century, the members of the Osage Nation became the richest people per capita in the world, after oil was discovered under their reservation, in Oklahoma. Then they began to be mysteriously murdered off. In 1923, after the death toll reached more than two dozen, the case was taken up by the Bureau of Investigation, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was among the F.B.I.’s first major homicide investigations. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the bureau’s director, in 1924, he sent a team of undercover operatives, including a Native American agent, to the Osage reservation.
You can read the book’s opening chapter article here to whet your appetite. But I promise that you’ll want to see for yourself how this sad and shocking story ends.
It seems impossible for Candice Millard to write an uninteresting book. Last year, I picked up The River of Doubt, a tale about Theodore Roosevelt’s quest into the Amazon. I loved it. So I went on a quest of my own to devour everything she’s written. If you like reading well-told history, you’ll dig Candice Millard’s books. Hero is about the young Winston Churchill’s dramatic escape from a prison camp during the Boer War. Destiny covers the sad and shocking assassination of President James Garfield, an extraordinary man of whom I knew far too little about. Both are excellent reads.
16. Battle For Middle-Earth / Fleming Rutledge
In the flurry of “best books of the year” posts, I saw a slew of positive endorsements for Rutledge’s magnum opus Crucifixion. While I read and appreciated some aspects of this work, I actually enjoyed her theological commentary on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings far more. I make it a point to try and read LOTR every year, and Rutledge was my companion this year as I journeyed with Frodo and Sam from Hobbiton in the Shire to Mount Doom and back again. Her comments throughout are textual, insightful, and illuminating. For those of us who often breath the sweet air of Middle Earth, this is a book worth reading.
17. The Secret History / Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s most famous novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Her debut novel, The Secret History, is not as well known and, perhaps, for good reason. It’s nerdy. It’s literary. It’s bookish. It’s highfalutin. It’s gloomy. It’s way too long. It’s filled with untranslated Greek. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s got this startling opening paragraph, and that’s all it took to reel me in:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. (1)
18. True Grit / Charles Portis
Speaking of Donna Tartt, she once wrote:
It’s commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece. Not only have I loved True Grit since I was a child; it is a book loved passionately by my entire family. I cannot think of another novel—any novel—which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes. (215-216)
I love True Grit, too. What’s it about? In the opening paragraph, the young Mattie Ross sets the stage:
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened. (9)
The dialogue in this novel is simply superb. One of my favorite exchanges in the book happens when Mattie is trying to find someone to avenge her father’s death:
“Who is the best marshal they have?”
The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L. T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”
I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (22-23)
And you’ll also find surprising theological jewels like this one:
The Indian woman spoke good English and I learned to my surprise that she too was a Presbyterian. She had been schooled by a missionary. What preachers we had in those days! Truly they took the word into “the highways and hedges.” Mrs. Bagby was not a Cumberland Presbyterian but a member of the U.S. or Southern Presbyterian Church. I too am now a member of the Southern Church. I say nothing against the Cumberlands. They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6:13 and II Timothy 1:9, 10. Also I Peter 1:2, 19, 20 and Romans 11:7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too. (109-110)
19. The Last Kingdom / Bernard Cornwell
Have you ever discovered a book you enjoy and then find out that it’s the first in a larger series of stories? My favorite historical fiction series is the sweeping Aubrey-Maturin collection by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve just begun the fourth novel, The Mauritius Command, and I’m thrilled to know that 16 more of these beautiful sea adventures still await me. I had the same experience when I came across The Last Kingdom, the first of ten volumes in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms. Here’s a flavor of Cornwell’s writing, when the main character sees the Viking ships approaching for the very first time:
And then I saw them. Three ships. In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south. Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents, and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far-off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged, and the beast-headed boats surged, and I stared entranced. The three boats had been rowing northward, their square sails furled on their long yards, but when we turned back south to canter homeward on the sand so that our horses’ manes tossed like wind-blown spray and the hooded hawks mewed in alarm, the ships turned with us. Where the cliff had collapsed to leave a ramp of broken turf we rode inland, the horses heaving up the slope, and from there we galloped along the coastal path to our fortress. (5)
20. 1984 / George Orwell
The best futuristic fiction is often utterly prescient. If you haven’t reread 1984 since high school, it’s high time you do so.
“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” (3)
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (3)
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” (31)
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (44)
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” (154)
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (168)
“For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” (177)
“He loved Big Brother.” (187)
21. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 / Volker Ullrich
Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, once asked, “How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a ‘half-insane rascal,’ a ‘pathetic dunderhead,’ a “nowhere fool,’ a ‘big mouth’ — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this ‘most unlikely pretender to high state office’ achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?” Ullrich supplies the tragic answer in this first of a two-volume series. It’s long, at over 1,000 pages. But it’s very well written. A timely read.
22. Theodore Rex / Edmund Morris
I spent much of this year hanging out again with Teddy Roosevelt. Last year just wasn’t enough time for me to get to know him, and after spending the year going slowly through volume two in Morris’ magisterial series, I’ve once again been entertained and amazed at the whirling dervish of personality that was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.. He was quite a piece of work. There are so many splendid examples of the Rooseveltian intensity, strenuosity, and enchantment in Theodore Rex. I commend the book to you and end by quoting from the personal reflections of Captain Archibald Willingham de Graffenreid Butt (what a name!), the President’s military aide from Georgia who visited Teddy at his home in Sagmore Hill:
Captain Butt stayed at Sagamore Hill for four more days, enchanted by the Roosevelt family, while they in turn found him to be unflappable, tireless, well-bred, and discreet. Like the President, he was a heroic trencherman, and matched Roosevelt plate by oversized plate, from double helpings of peaches and cream for breakfast, followed by fried liver and bacon and hominy grits with salt and butter (“Why, Mr. President, this is a Southern breakfast-), through three-course lunches and meat dinners suppurating with fat. “You think me a large eater,” Butt wrote in his next letter home. “Well, I am small in comparison to him. But he has a tremendous body and really enjoys each mouthful. I never saw anyone with a more wholesome appetite, and then he complains of not losing flesh. I felt like asking him today: ‘How can you expect to.)’ ”
Between meals, there was much strenuous activity. Butt discovered during a midsummer deluge (as Ambassador Jusserand had discovered during a February snowstorm) that Roosevelt considered tennis to be a game for all seasons. The sodden ball was smashed to and fro. Swimming and water-fighting, too, were by their nature compatible with rain. When heat built up in the woods, the President was impelled to seize an ax and get in fuel for the winter. “I think Mr. Roosevelt cuts down trees merely for the pleasure of hearing them fall,” Butt wrote. “Just as he swims and plays tennis merely for the pleasure of straining his muscles and shouting. Yet when he reads he has such powers of concentration that he hears no noise around him and is unable to say whether people have been in the room or not.” The President’s strenuosity extended even to ghost stories. “I want ghosts who do things. I don’t care for the Henry James kind of ghosts. I want real sepulchral ghosts, the kind that knock you over and eat fire… none of your weak, shallow apparitions.”
Much of Roosevelt’s library time that weekend was devoted to books and maps about Africa. He talked about it continually. “You know how you feel when you have all but finished one job and are eager to get at another. Well, that is how I feel. I sometimes feel that I am no longer President, I am so anxious to get on this trip.” He hoped that by the time he came down the Nile, to meet up with Edith in Cairo, he would be “sufficiently forgotten” to return home “without being a target for the newspapers.” Winthrop asked what quarry he feared the most in East Africa. The answer came promptly: “You can kill the lion by shooting him in any part of the body, but his alertness and agility make him the most dangerous to me.”
Roosevelt moved on to discuss the King of Abyssinia, Albert Beveridge’s affectations, Shakespeare’s “compressed thought,” and the Book of Common Prayer, with interspersed witticisms that had his listeners roaring with laughter. “His humour is so elusive, his wit so dashing and his thoughts so incisive that I find he is the hardest man to quote that I have ever heard talk,” Butt wrote. “In conversation he is a perfect flying squirrel, and before you have grasped one pungent thought he goes off on another limb whistling for you to follow.” (532-533)
23. Hellhound On His Trail / Hampton Sides
This book tells the story of one of the darkest moments in America’s history, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sides then details the subsequent search for the killer, James Earl Ray, which was the largest manhunt in American history.
24. Ten Restaurants That Changed America / Paul Freedman
Almost half the meals eaten in America take place outside the home. I’ve eaten at restaurants all my life but I’d never once considered the history of restaurants in America until I read this book:
This book is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed in the United States. Some of the establishments on our list have served marvelous food; others changed how we eat, even if in retrospect their innovations don’t seem so wonderful or their food fails to satisfy today’s tastes. The selection is based on influence and exemplification: the importance of each restaurant for setting or reflecting trends in what Americans think about food and particularly dining out. Culinary fashions, as social history shows us, are determined not just by the upper classes who pride themselves on discernment but by the enthusiasms of less pretentious people for modest but ubiquitous places to eat, such as coffee shops, ice-cream parlors, or highway restaurants. What we eat today is the result of the innovations of these ten restaurants.
The opening chapter on Delmonico’s is, as you might expect, mouth-watering.
My Final 12:
25. Shark Drunk / Morten Strøksnes
Perhaps the most unique book I read in 2017 was subtitled, “The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean.” Even though the author writes from an utterly secular perspective, I still found times when his description of creation led me to worship. I pray Mr. Strøksnes comes to know the One deserving of all worship, the One who made the Greenland shark as a display of His matchless glory:
On land, life is lived horizontally. Almost everything takes place on the ground, or at most on a level with the tallest trees. Of course birds can fly higher, but even they spend the majority of their time near the ground. The sea, on the other hand, is vertical, an interconnected column of water with an average depth of approximately 12,000 feet. And there is life from top to bottom. The vast majority of living space on earth, so to speak, can be found in the sea. All other landscapes, including the rain forests, pale in comparison. If we combine what we know about the ocean’s depths, from a purely logical point of view we can conclude that everything found on land—all the mountains, ridges, fields, forests, deserts, even the cities and other man-made phenomena—all this could easily fit into the sea. The average elevation on land is only 2,700 feet. Even if we dumped the whole Himalayan range into the deepest part of the ocean, it would make only a big splash before the mountain chain sank and disappeared without a trace. There is so much water in the ocean that if we imagined the entire seafloor rising up to what is now the surface, all the continents would be totally covered under many miles of salt water. Only the tops of the tallest mountains would stick up out of the ocean. (35)
There is an enormous amount of water in outer space. But in our own solar system, water—in liquid form—presumably exists only on our planet. The earth is the perfect distance from the sun. If we had been farther out in the solar system, all our water would have been in the form of ice or vapor, as in the sperm-like tails of comets racing away from the sun. The earth is big enough for gravity to hold the atmosphere in place, even though that’s not a given. And we’re not close enough to any giant planet with so much gravitational pull that every flow tide would make a wave several hundred feet high wash over the whole planet, like in the movie Interstellar. On Neptune, harsh conditions prevail. Icy winds blowing at more than twelve hundred miles per hour are constantly sweeping across the planet’s polished white surface. The average temperature is about minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The distance from our earth to the sun is such that most of our water is liquid. Without these conditions, the water would be ice or gas, if it was present at all. And life as we know it wouldn’t be able to exist. (112)
Moonlight takes more than a second to reach earth. Sunlight takes eight minutes. It occurs to me that astronomers are archaeologists or geologists, searching for fossils of light. Nothing happens in real time; everything we see is from the past. We’re always lagging slightly behind. Even in our interactions, even inside our own heads, we’re a millionth of a second behind. Our own Milky Way, which is one among billions of galaxies, is a hundred thousand light-years in diameter. (113)
Today the sea is not quiet. We know that even before we reach the seaward side. But it’s not outright hostile either. The fourteen-footer sits noticeably low in the water, for obvious reasons. Luckily the sea isn’t too rough, just long breakers that won’t put our heavy, listless boat to the test. Of course that could all change, and much faster than the time it would take to get back to harbor. The boat could serve as a deep freezer. It probably contains enough ice for two thousand cocktails, and four thousand whisky on the rocks. A couple of drinks would be great right now, to stop me from worrying about heading into the open Lofoten Sea in this frozen boat. The seagulls are silent, the snow sparkling white. Even the sun seems cold. For me, coming from the big city only yesterday, the dazzling clear surroundings and the wide horizon are refreshment for my soul. Yet there’s something about the sea today that has me concerned. What could be lurking behind the silvery-white and viscous fluidity? It’s like staring into a glass eye. (169)
To find out what’s lurking just below the service, you’ll have to read Shark Drunk for yourself.
26. Off Speed / Terry McDermott
The best sports book I read in 2017 was far and away this gem of a baseball book by Terry McDermott. He uses the perfect game tossed by King Felix in August 2012 against Tampa Bay as a backdrop to wax eloquent about the sweet science of pitching a baseball, that five-ounce ball roughly the size of your fist. McDermott covers the history and mechanics of the fastball, curveball, spitball, sinker, knuckleball, slider, split, cutter, and change-up.
Consider the major league hitter’s basic problem. The pitcher stands on a small hill sixty feet six inches, give or take a foot, depending on where in the batter’s box the hitter stands. The pitcher strides forward before he throws, and, by the time he releases the ball, has already shrunk the distance between him and the hitter by almost 10 percent. An average fastball from an average pitcher leaves his hand at about 90 mph. A pitcher of average size throwing at average speed gives the hitter approximately four-tenths of a second to see, identify, and attack a pitch. That is about how long it takes to blink your eyes twice. The batter is using an implement uniquely unsuitable to accomplishing his task. A baseball bat is normally somewhat less than a yard long; it weighs somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty-six ounces. At its thickest part it is 2.25 inches in diameter. If the bat is to strike the ball solidly, the ball must hit near the center of the bat’s circumference about six inches from the bat’s end. The spot varies from bat to bat, depending on the type and hardness of the wood and the shape and weight of the bat, but at its largest this spot is about five square inches in area. Think of that for a moment. A hitter must swing a yardlong piece of round wood in such a way that he contacts a small round ball moving faster than he is legally allowed to drive his car. The contact has to occur within a fivesquare-inch area of the wood. The plane of the strike zone varies from hitter to hitter but is theoretically seventeen inches wide and approximately two feet tall. Of course, the zone is not a plane at all, but a volume of approximately 4.5 cubic feet. It extends from the front of home plate to the rear, and a ball passing through it at any point is supposed to be a strike. In real life, the zone tends to be wider and shorter than the rulebook stipulates. Nonetheless, the batter is defending more than four cubic feet of space with a five-square-inch weapon, and he has to swing the bat at a speed of 70 mph in order to move it from his shoulder to the center of the plate. “It is far more likely that the pitcher will accidentally throw the ball in the way of the hitter’s bat than it is for the hitter to time the pitch perfectly and execute flawless swing mechanics to achieve 100 percent on-time contact on their own,” according to Perry Husband, who has studied pitcher-batter interactions extensively. The deck, in other words, is stacked. (7-8)
Early baseball was a hitter’s sport. Hitters could request pitchers to throw the ball in specific locations. Teams routinely scored dozens of runs, sometimes as many as one hundred. Pitchers were placed inside a box about forty feet from the hitters and were required to throw the ball underhanded. They were also supposed to throw the ball as slowly as possible. To ensure the speed limit was adhered to, the pitcher was required to keep his wrist stiff. The rule makers might as well have served the ball to hitters on a platter, which was exactly the point. The rule specified: “The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat. ” It was more like slow-pitch softball, or coach-pitch Little League, than the game we know today. (26)
When a man throws a baseball, it travels at whatever speed he is able to impart to it through the levers of his throwing motion. There is an upper limit, imposed by human physiology, on this speed. It appears to be something less than 110 mph, perhaps as low as 106 mph. By manipulating his grip on the ball and the motion of his wrist at release, the pitcher imparts spin to the pitch. As the ball moves through the air, the spin causes the ball to move in a certain, predictable direction. Because of the spin, the air on one side of the ball moves faster than the other, resulting in uneven pressure on the ball, making it curve in the direction of the lower pressure. This is known as the Magnus Force. Additionally, no matter how fast a ball is thrown, gravity pulls the ball toward the earth as it hurtles homeward. Finally, air resistance, or drag, slows the ball down. A typical major league pitch will lose about 10 percent of its release velocity by the time it gets to the hitter. A 100 mph fastball will be traveling at about 90 mph when it reaches the vicinity of home plate…In the time it takes your brain to register that a baseball has been thrown at it, the baseball has already eliminated a third of the distance between you and it. (81-82, 83-84)
You don’t have to know what Magnus Force is to enjoy this book.
27. The Genius of Birds / Jennifer Ackerman
Reading books is often an exercise in humility because you realize how little you actually know. There’s so much in this God-spoke world that we simply don’t know. I was humbled throughout The Genius of Birds. I was provoked by the title. What’s so special about birds? Well, it turns out, quite a lot actually.
For a long time, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction. Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all. That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so, from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future. (1-2)
Many bird species are highly social. They breed in colonies, bathe in groups, roost in congregations, forage in flocks. They eavesdrop. They argue. They cheat. They deceive and manipulate. They kidnap. They divorce. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war with twigs, strands of Spanish moss, bits of gauze. They pilfer from their neighbors. They warn their young away from strangers. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. (101)
The sheer profusion and precision of a mockingbird’s imitated songs is a marvel. A tally of one mockingbird’s tunes captured twenty imitations of calls and songs per minute: nuthatches, kingfisher, northern cardinal, kestrel, even the high-pitched seep seep seep begging of a mockingbird chick. The Arnold Arboretum mocker of Boston was said to mimic thirty-nine birdsongs, fifty birdcalls, and the notes of a frog and a cricket. You can tell where a mockingbird lives by the songs he sings. So particular is a song to its bird that individual birds within a population may share only 10 percent of their song patterns. When it came to describing the mockingbird’s imitative skills, the ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush dropped all pretense of scientific detachment, trumpeting the mocker as “the king of song” surpassing “the whole feathered choir.” No wonder the Native Americans of South Carolina called the bird Cencontlatolly, or “Four Hundred Tongues.” It’s only a small exaggeration. Mockingbirds regularly imitate as many as two hundred different songs. (147)
Birds wearing tiny geolocator backpacks have revealed the details of their marathon migrations. The tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird of boreal forest, leaves New England and eastern Canada each fall and migrates to South America, flying nonstop over the Atlantic to its staging grounds in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Greater Antilles—a flight of up to seventeen hundred miles—in just two or three days. The Arctic tern, a bird who lives by his love of long daylight and bent for high mileage, circles the world in orbit with the seasons, flying from its nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antarctica—a round-trip of almost forty-four thousand miles. In an average thirty-year lifetime, then, a tern may fly the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back. How in the world does it find its way? How does a red knot resting at Cape May on its spring journey north from Tierra del Fuego know how to pinpoint last year’s breeding grounds in the distant northern Arctic? How does a European bee-eater traveling south from its summer season in a farm field in Spain find a course over the Sahara to its familiar patch of West African forest? How does a bristle-thighed curlew or a sooty shearwater steer homeward over a vast and featureless expanse of sea? As one who gets easily lost in a small patch of woodland, I’m in awe of the navigating abilities of birds. How can they accomplish a feat few humans can carry out even with the help of a compass? (199)
The fog is lifting. I can begin to make out the undulant curtain of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the valley, purpled by the haze. From a grove of trees nearby comes the piercing zeet of a chickadee. I wander over, and there is the bird perched in a pine tree, rolling out its string of dees, perhaps taking measure of my presence. One has only to consider the extraordinary genius packed tightly into that tiny puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries of a bird’s knowing—the what and the why. These are wonderful puzzles to keep around on our intellectual bookshelf, to remind us how little we still know. (266)
28. Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout / Philip Connors
In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes a fascinating point about the value of reading books:
“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others.” (140)
I owe enormous thanks to Philip Connors, the author of his lyrical nonfiction memoir about his life as a wilderness lookout. Connors left his budding career as a Wall Street Journal reporter in order to spend half a year keeping vigil over 20,000 square miles of desert, forest, and mountain chains from atop a tower 10,000 feet above sea level. I’m quite certain I’ll never be a wilderness lookout. But after reading Fire Season, I feel like I’ve looked through the eyes of one:
Since that first summer I’ve returned each succeeding year to sit 10,000 feet above sea level and watch for smoke. Most days I can see a hundred miles in all directions. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east stretches the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs, and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of scarce water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with grasses. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons. A peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order—and my job to sound the alarm if it burns. Having spent eight summers in my little glass-walled perch, I have an intimate acquaintance with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal winds of spring, when gales off the desert gust above seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills and mesas, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the radio antenna sizzles like bacon on a griddle and the lightning makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms and lightning that made my hair stand on end. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather. I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know what it is. (3)
29. How to Steal the Mona Lisa / Taylor Bayouth
One of the perks of living in the Washington, D.C. area is the easy access to wonderful museums and art galleries. During one of our visits to the Smithsonian, my youngest son saw the Hope Diamond and asked, “I wonder if anyone has ever tried to steal that thing?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but after reading How to Steal the Mona Lisa, I now have at least an idea of how someone might try to pull off such a brazen heist. Bayouth describes how he would go about nabbing several priceless art and artifacts including the Hope Diamond, the “Mona Lisa,” the Archaeopteryx Lithographica, Rodin’s “Thinker,” King Tut’s golden death mask, the Crown Jewels, and the Codex Leicester. I’m not sure any of these how-to’s would actually work and I think he’s only kidding. But either way, my boys laughed and giggled mischievously throughout this read. They especially enjoyed the fun diagrams and visual aids, like this one:
Pro tip: When driving your getaway car at a remarkable rate, don’t forget to remove your welder’s goggles.
30. Magpie Murders / Anthony Horowitz
This unputdownable whodunit is a mystery within a mystery, an enigma within an enigma, a novel within a novel. It’s like getting two ingenious novels for the price of one. I thought it was brilliant.
I miss P.D. James. While she died in 2014, her mystery stories are still being published posthumously, evidenced by the most recent release of Sleep No More. Several of these tales are set during Christmastime, including one morbidly entitled “The Murder of Santa Claus”:
We drove through the village in silence. It lay sombre and deserted in its pre-Christmas calm. I can remember the church half-hidden behind the great yews and the silent school with the children’s Christmas chains of coloured paper gleaming dully against the windows. Marston Turville is a small seventeenth-century manor house, its three wings built round a courtyard. I saw it first as a mass of grey stone, blacked out as was the whole village, under low broken clouds. My uncle greeted me before a log fire in the great hall. I came in, blinking, from the December dusk into a blaze of colour; candles sparkling on the huge Christmas tree, its tub piled with imitation snowballs of frosted cotton wool; the leaping fire; the gleam of firelight on silver. My fellow guests were taking tea and I see them as a tableau, cups halfway to their lips, predestined victims waiting for the tragedy to begin. (64-65)
I also had the pleasure of revisiting one of my favorite Inspector Dalgliesh stories, The Black Tower, that finds the famous Scotland Yard detective-poet downcast and convalescing in a retirement home in an isolated village on the Dorset coast.
He wasn’t sure whether this disenchantment with his job was caused solely by his illness, the salutory reminder of inevitable death, or whether it was the symptom of a more fundamental malaise, that latitude in middle-life of alternate doldrums and uncertain winds when one realizes that hopes deferred are no longer realizable, that ports not visited will now never be seen, that this journey and others before it may have been a mistake, that one has no longer even confidence in charts and compass. More than his job now seemed to him trivial and unsatisfactory. Lying sleepless as so many patients must have done before him in that bleak impersonal room, watching the headlamps of passing cars sweep across the ceiling, listening to the secretive and muted noises of the hospital’s nocturnal life, he took the dispiriting inventory of his life. (11-12)
What I enjoy most about P.D. James is her ability to draw the reader’s attention to God’s bright and bountiful kindness in creation, even atop the dark backdrop of murder and mayhem:
Before he turned again to the car his eye was caught by a small clump of unknown flowers. The pale pinkish white heads rose from a mossy pad on top of the wall and trembled delicately in the light breeze. Dalgliesh walked over and stood stock still, regarding in silence their unpretentious beauty. He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the purely physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good. (18)
It was a warm misty morning under a sky of low cloud. As he left the valley and began to trudge up the cliff path a reluctant rain began to fall in slow heavy drops. The sea was a milky blue, sluggish and opaque, its slopping waves pitted with rain and awash with shifting patterns of floating foam. There was a smell of autumn as if someone far off, undetected even by a wisp of smoke, was burning leaves. The narrow path rose higher skirting the cliff edge, now close enough to give him a brief vertiginous illusion of danger, now twisting inland between a tatter of bronzed bracken crumpled with the wind, and low tangles of bramble bushes, their red and black berries tight and meagre compared with the luscious fruit of inland hedgerows. The headland was dissected by low broken walls of stone and studded with small limestone rocks. Some, half buried, protruded tipsily from the soil like the relics of a disorderly graveyard. Dalgliesh walked warily. It was his first country walk since his illness. The demands of his job meant that walking had always been a rare and special pleasure. Now he moved with something of the uncertainty of those first tentative steps of convalescence, muscles and senses rediscovering remembered pleasures, not with keen delight but with the gentle acceptance of familiarity. The brief metallic warble and churling note of stonechats, busy among the brambles; a solitary black-headed gull motionless as a ship’s figurehead on a promontory of rock; clumps of rock samphire, their umbels stained with purple; yellow dandelions, pinpoints of brightness on the faded autumnal grass. After nearly ten minutes of walking the cliff path began to slope gently downhill and was eventually dissected by a narrow lane running inland from the cliff edge. About six yards from the sea it broadened into a gently sloping plateau of bright green turf and moss. Dalgliesh stopped suddenly as if stung by memory. This then, must be the place where Victor Holroyd had chosen to sit, the spot from which he had plunged to his death. For a moment he wished that it hadn’t lain so inconveniently in his path. The thought of violent death broke disagreeably into his euphoria. But he could understand the attraction of the spot. The lane was secluded and sheltered from the wind, there was a sense of privacy and peace. (103-104)
32. Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection / Arthur Conan Doyle
My Audiobook of the Year is this Audible production read by Stephen Fry, whose narration sweeps you away to Victorian England, fog-drenched London, and, of course, 221B Baker Street.
33. S Is For Southern / Ed. David DiBenedetto
If you’re from the South, or have visited the South, or just know a Southerner, I think you’ll find this survey both entertaining and illuminating. There are brief articles on all things Southern, from “Absinthe” to “Zydeco,” from the “Atlanta Braves” to “Wonder Bread, and from to “Barbecue” to “Y’all.” Here’s a tasty sampling:
ACCENT: The Southern accent is one of our nation’s greatest treasures. Its beauty rivals that of a songbird or the most resonant cello. Had the Southern accent not been invented, our ears would have fallen off long ago, or become vestigial, fleshy cauliflowers hanging off the sides of our heads, for without the Southern accent there would have been nothing much worth listening to. Someone, somewhere, can make a case that I’m exaggerating its importance to us as a people and to America, but I can assure you I am not. Maybe I am.
But it’s lovely, isn’t it, the Southern accent? It’s not because I have one myself that I say this, because my accent is not what it could be: years of watching I Dream of Jeannie growing tip have me talking more like an out-of-work B actor than like my grandmother Eva Pedigo, who came from Savannah, settled in Birmingham, and sounded as if she marinated her vowels in butter overnight. An accent is your vocal personality. It’s like a hairstyle or a favorite pair of shoes, the only difference being that it’s in your throat.
There’s a Northern accent as well, and it’s easily distinguishable from a Southern accent the same way a paper bag full of broken glass is distinguishable from a cashmere scarf. But when you leave the South and head in other directions, accents tend to disappear, the song of language is lost, and what you’re left with is bland communication, meaning without music. It’s amusing, at least to me, to hear scholarly argot used to understand and investigate our day-to-day lives, especially the most resolutely non-scholarly subjects, like Southern English. My wife, a Vermonter, had no idea what fixin’ to meant when she first heard it. Had she researched the phrase, she would have learned that it indicated “immediate future action.” I could have told her that. (2)
BACON: I remember. Weekend mornings asleep in my attic bedroom in Birmingham, Alabama, not exactly waking to the smell of bacon, but being awakened by it. Similar to that of freshly cut wet grass, the smell of bacon can travel for miles and never lose its potency. It was just like the cartoons I watched at the time— Pepe le Pew I remember most vividly— in which you could see the smells; they wafted through the air like spirits. They could corral you like a lariat; they could capture you. That’s what bacon did to me. Half-asleep, I would follow it downstairs and into the kitchen, and still half-asleep eat it until my mother slapped my hand. “Save some for the rest of us.” Only then would I open my eyes completely, a boy trapped in an unfeeling world where he had to share.
Bacon is a time machine for me to this day. I smell it and it’s Saturday morning. My parents, dead now for many years, are seated around the morning room table. My beautiful sisters— one of whom is also gone— also crowd around me, lunging for what is rightly mine, for what I very clearly had dibs on, being the first down. But they strike as fast as copperheads. Our dog Rudy, that little brown mixed breed, as long as a dachshund with the face of a beagle (we called him a dog, though no one was really sure), hid himself beneath the table, as still as a jungle animal, hoping for crumbs. Everyone is happy, everyone is young. Life is something that is just about to happen, and it’s all good. That is what bacon does to me.
Eating bacon is like dating Taylor Swift: it may not be good for you, but people just keep coming back for more, understanding that a life with a little bacon in it beats a life with no bacon at all. Bacon is full of saturated fat and salt, and yet unlike other foods makes no secret of it. Bacon is honest. Maybe this is one reason we’ve seen an increase in the popularity of bacon and recipes that call for it, such that we can now be said to be experiencing a “bacon mania.״ Those of us who were raised on a farm might count a piglet as a dear first pet and eat him later. That’s because bacon is stronger than love itself. I wasn’t raised on a farm but, rather, in front of a television, and yet I too counted a pig as my first virtual pet: Arnold Ziffel, on Green Acres. But that changes nothing. I would eat him if he were bacon. Bacon is not just bacon. It’s bacon ice cream, chocolate-dipped bacon, and more. It’s the meaty embodiment of Southern culture. (18)
34. Zeal Without Burnout / Christopher Ash
Christopher Ash produces helpful resources for believers year after year. I appreciated his candid and humble missive on sustainable sacrifice. We need sleep… and God does not. We need Sabbath rests… and God does not. We need friends… and God does not. We need inward renewal… and God does not. Sacrifice is not the same as burnout. As a young pastor, I needed to read this book and I plan to read it again in 2018.
If you’re looking for other helpful resources to get organized and focused for the new year ahead, I was helped last year by each of these books in various ways:
Two years ago I began walking across pre-WWII Europe with Patrick Leigh Fermor. We’ve been trekking our way to Constantinople and we finally arrived. I’m sort of sad that the journey is over. Fermor is quite the wordsmith. He never uses one word when ten would do. Here’s a typical Fermorian sentence:
A restless geometry of fire-flies darted about under the spatulate volume of the chestnut trees, and getting up one night to go to bed, we found emerald-coloured tree-frogs smaller than threepenny-bits clinging to the leaves like miniature green castaways on rafts. (Between The Woods and the Water, 107)
Imagine being near a train track when the Orient Express passed by. How would you put that experience into words? Here’s the way Fermor rendered such an event from his own life:
I was pondering these matters, slogging along through the twilight beside the banked railway, when a humming along the rails and an increasing clatter behind me indicated the approach of a train. The shuddering cylinder grew larger and larger and soon it was rocketing by overhead; all the windows were alight in a serpent of bright quadrilaterals, and along the coach work, as it crashed past, was painted: Paris–Munich–Vienna–Zagreb–Belgrade–Sofia–Istanbul and Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. The Orient Express! The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed. The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs. I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer. I wondered who the passengers were– they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople. The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms’ manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau. (The Broken Road, 22)
How would you describe a sunset? Here’s Fermor doing just that:
The clouds had flushed an astounding pink. But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alfold leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants… the least said the better. (The Broken Road, 44)
Perhaps my favorite part in these final two volumes is the conclusion of Volume 2 when Fermor finally catches sight of the Carpathian Uplands:
On the one hand a canyon thrust a deep gash north-east into the range I had been skirting for days, and its climb into the Carpathians reached the foot of the great ashen peaks. On the other, it plunged south-west down a gorge that would lead to the lowlands, and, at last, to the everyday world: but there was no hint of this yet. The chasm was silent except for the sound of water and the echo of an occasional rock falling. But while I gazed, clouds at the head of the ravine were breaking loose and spreading crumpled shadows across the juts and the clefts; then they blotted out the sun in an abrupt upland storm.
The wind sent a few sighting shots, followed by a swish of raindrops. Sheltering under an overhang, I watched them turn into hailstones the size of mothballs: they bounced and scattered downhill by the million; and in half an hour, their white drifts were all that was left. The washed rocks looked newly cut, there was not a cloud in sight and a breeze smelling of bracken and wet earth kept the air from stagnating.
Even jumping from ledge to ledge and sliding on wet pine-needles, the downward climb lasted for hours. Scree slowed the pace and buttresses of rock, smooth as boiler-plates or spiked like iguanas, imposed grueling swerves. Gleams across the cliffs revealed faraway threads of water; close to, they coiled and cataracted through the tree-trunks as conifers abdicated when the hardwoods began to outnumber them; and the ravine, deepening fast, coaxed the trees higher and higher until the oaks, mantled with ivy, pronged with the antlers of dead boughs and tufted with mistletoe, grew into giants.
Clearings of beech opened their forest-chambers and bracken gave way to mares’ tails, hemlock and the tatters of old man’s beard. The damp, which covered everything with moss, looped the branches with creepers and plumed the clefts and forks overhead, and the flaking bark, shaggy with lichen, greaved the tree-trunks like metal tainted with verdigris, filling the slanting world underneath with a stagey green-grey light. The woods had become an undercroft of acorns, beech-nuts and moaning wood-pigeons; the sound of water grew louder; and soon, flecked by leaf-shadows and askim with wagtails and redstarts, the ice-cold Cerna was rushing by under the branches.
The mysterious river split and joined again round blades of rock, slid over shelves that combed it into symmetrical waterfalls and rushed on chopping and changing down the gorge. Then I came down into quieter reaches. Shoals of trout anchored themselves among the reflections of elderflower or glided to new retreats, deep in the shade, where only a few wrinkles hinted at the current, and the black rocks, which gave the river its dark Slavonic cumbered the depths. (The Broken Road, 221-222)
36. Devotions / Mary Oliver
Several years ago, I was in a small bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod. While in the poetry section, I found a copy of Thirst. I’ve been a big fan of Mary Oliver ever since. Devotions is a wonderful collection of her work. Some of my favorites aren’t included (like “The Place I Want To Get Back To”), but that doesn’t diminish the quality of this volume for me. Oliver, like all poets worth reading, paints with words what she sees in the world, marvelous mysteries in plain sight and miracles in the commonplace.
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass? (173)
W.H. Davis once wrote: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?” I’m hoping for a more attentive year in 2018, filled with thanksgiving to the Lord for His covenant mercies, fresh every morning.
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!
“You may be tempted to skip this chapter because you think it’s boring or relatively unimportant. Grammar doesn’t have to be boring. (I love it!)
But more importantly, grammar matters because God chose to reveal Himself to us with grammar. So paying attention to grammar is a way to pay attention to God.
The more accurately you understand grammar, the more accurately you can understand God.”
–Andy Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps From Exegesis To Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), p. 82.
These are my favorite books that I read in 2016. There are 36 selections this year so I apologize in advance for the length of this post and for all the intense scrolling you’re about to do. Consider yourself warned.
My Top 12:
1. The King in His Beauty / Thomas Schreiner
My favorite book this year was this biblical theological feast by Dr. Tom Schreiner. He walks through the Old and New Testaments, book by book, tracing both the wonders of our King’s glory and grace and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. Any book that helps you understand the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26) and causes you to treasure the Lord by faith is worth reading. The King in His Beauty does just that.
“Believers are instructed to trust God and to look to Jesus, who went before them. They are promised a final reward whereby they will eat from the tree of life forever. The world will be a new temple and a new garden where God dwells. All that belonged to Adam at the beginning will be theirs and more. Those in the new creation know what it is like to be separated from fellowship with God. They know what it is to be redeemed from the horrific evil that dwelt in their own hearts. They know and exult in the love of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ. They are safe in the heavenly city, with its impregnable walls. The gates of the city can be left open, for there is no enemy within or without who can conquer God’s people now. They will see God’s face in the person of Jesus Christ. They will see the King in His beauty, and they will be glad forever.” (645-646)
2. Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God / Rankin Wilbourne
Rankin Wilbourne has written a crystal clear and winsome survey of the glories of the believer’s Spirit-wrought, faith-union with Jesus Christ. This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Understanding our identity in Christ changes everything.
- “Union with Christ is not a fact we can put in our pocket, but rather a key to open a door into a whole new reality.”
- “Of all the good news the gospel brings, the greatest—and the door to all the rest—is that you can be united to Christ.”
- “’You are in Christ’ gives you assurance. ‘Christ is in you’ gives you power.’”
- “Union with Christ tells us we are not alone.”
- “Union with Christ is an enchanted reality. The most important things about our lives cannot be seen or touched with our senses.”
- “Union with Christ is not only the anchor of holiness; it is also the engine of our holiness.”
- “If you are in Christ, your life and your story become enfolded by another story, Another’s story.”
- “Union with Christ gives you a completely new self-understanding found outside of yourself in Christ.”
- “Union with Christ says that Christ is not simply at the center of our lives; He is at the center of all creation.”
- “If you are united to Christ, then from Him come both grace and demand, which together lead to a life of joy.”
- “The gospel of extravagant grace requires nothing from us and the gospel of radical discipleship demands everything of us.”
- “Christ dwelling in us by His Spirit is a guarantee that we can and will change.”
- “We are not the center of the gospel because we are not the center of the universe.”
3. His Love Endures Forever: Reflections on The Immeasurable Love of God / Garry Williams
This book is worshipful systematic theology at its best. God is love but His love is different from human love. Williams magnifies God by highlighting these differences from Scripture.
“My argument is that our grasp of the unique manner of God’s love deepens our grasp of its peerless magnitude: it is only when we see the similarities of God’s love to human love and its differences from it that we see how great it is, how great He is.” (18)
“God’s love is different from our love in its manner and the uniqueness of its manner lends it a peerless magnitude. In this book I have tried to offer you a glimpse of the love of God from the Scriptures. I am thrilled by what we have seen, but as I draw to a close my attempt feels flimsy and inadequate against the reality, this book like fragments of crumbling paper scattered by a mighty wind. This majestic, glorious, unfathomable divine love will be our inexhaustible eternal occupation. We are teetering only on the brink of edging across the margins of the very beginning of understanding it.” (195)
4. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance / Sinclair Ferguson
In The Whole Christ, Dr. Ferguson, in his pastorally wise and winsome way, reminds us that our salvation, all of our salvation, comes to us from God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This salvation is a “Christ-centered, Trinity-honoring, eternity-rooted, redemption-providing, adoption-experiencing, holiness-producing, assurance-effecting, God-glorifying salvation.” (228-229) Throughout this rich volume, Ferguson reiterates the truth that real progress in sanctification and real growth in ministry boils down to Christlikeness.
“Perhaps it was the experience of— or at least the desire for— such ministry that led the Scottish forefathers to have a small brass plate fastened inside the pulpit of many churches, the words engraved on it being visible only to the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12:21 KJV) For that to be true— whatever our gifts and calling— we who serve Christ and His people must first ‘see Him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly.’” (229)
5. A Peculiar Glory / John Piper
Near the conclusion of this superb book about the self-authenticating divine glory of Scripture, Piper writes:
“No one decides to see glory. And no one merely decides to experience the Christian Scriptures as the all-compelling, all-satisfying truth of one’s life. In the end, seeing is a gift. And so the free embrace of God’s word is a gift. God’s Spirit opens the eyes of our heart, and what was once boring, or absurd, or foolish, or mythical is now self-evidently real. You can pray and ask God for that miracle. I ask daily for fresh eyes for His glory.” (283)
Amen. I can hardly wait to dig into Part 2 of this series.
I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Richard Hays on the Old Testament echoes in the Gospels. You don’t have to agree with all of his interpretations or conclusions to marvel at the clarity with which the Evangelists point us to the glory of Jesus Christ, the God of Israel in the flesh.
“There is only one reason why the Evangelists’ Christological interpretation of the Old Testament is not a matter of stealing or twisting Israel’s sacred texts: the God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel’s story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God’s self-revelation. As readers, we are forced to choose which of these hermeneutical forks in the road we will take. By forcing this choice upon us, the Evangelists compel us to read their Gospels neither as mere sources of historical information nor as entertaining or edifying tales. They compel us instead to read their Gospels as testimony to the truth, the sort of testimony that demands a self-involving response. We cannot rightly read the Gospels without hearing Jesus’ question to Peter as a question also addressed directly to us: ‘But you— who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29).” (365)
7. ESV Reader’s Gospels / God
I loved reading this book over and over again in 2016. If you’ve never tried reading through each Gospel in one sitting, get this book and go for it. You won’t regret it.
8. The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses / Chris Bruno
The title says it all. Clever idea, faithfully executed, and extremely useful. A great book to use for discipling new believers on the grand story of Scripture.
9. The Essential Trinity / Eds. Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman
The Trinity is both Biblical and practical. This book has two parts: “Part 1 considers the trinitarian contours of every corpus of the New Testament, along with a chapter on the Trinity and the Old Testament. Part 2 counters the charge that the Trinity is irrelevant as a practical doctrine by considering selected topics in Christian life and ministry.” Scott Swain’s chapter on the mystery of the Trinity is outstanding:
“The doctrine of the Trinity is the most sublime truth of the Christian faith and its supreme treasure. Christian teaching concerning one God in three persons flows from the revelation of the high and holy name of the Lord God Almighty: ‘the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19). This glorious name identifies the true and living God and, because it is the name into which we are baptized, constitutes our only comfort in life and in death. Not only does the doctrine of the Trinity identify God, it also illumines all of God’s works, enabling us to perceive more clearly the wonders of the Father’s purpose in creation, of Christ’s incarnation, and of the Spirit’s indwelling. All things are from the Trinity, through the Trinity, and to the Trinity. And so, seen in the sublime light of the Trinity, we see all things in a new light.” (191-192)
10. Luther on the Christian Life / Carl Trueman
I spend time reading Martin Luther every February. Carl Trueman’s contribution to Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series was a helpful guide for me this year. He reminded me why reading Luther is challenging, rewarding, and, at times, just plain fun.
“I find Luther to be one of the most human theologians there is, certainly among Protestants. His humor alone endears him to me. His last written words—’We are beggars: this is true’—set all human pretensions to greatness and divinity in tragicomic perspective. A theologian who ultimately helps us to remember that we are of no lasting earthly importance whatsoever has crucial importance in an era obsessed with numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I find Luther to address some of the most basic questions of human existence: despair, illness, sex, love, bereavement, children, enemies, danger, death. Luther touches on them all, and always with an unusual anecdote, an insightful comment, a human touch. There is no false, desiccated, tedious piety about the man. He lived his Christian life to the full, red in tooth and claw. I find Luther to be fun. Who else would describe how a woman scared the Devil away by breaking wind in his face, but then caution his listeners not to do the same as it could prove lethal? Any theologian with advice like that has to be worth reading. Finally, I love Luther because it was his highest ambition to let God be God. And in doing so he realized that the love of God does not find but creates that which is lovely to it.” (29)
11. Job: The Wisdom of the Cross / Christopher Ash
Garrett Kell told me about the awesomeness of this book and it certainly lived up to the hype. It’s one of the most devotionally rich commentaries I’ve ever read. Ash is a wonderful tour guide through one of my favorite books in Scripture.
12. Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting / Dave Furman
I read this book when I was in the middle of preaching a sermon series through the Book of Job. I was served and convicted when I read Dave’s chapter entitled “Whatever You Do, Don’t Do These Things.” I trust you will be too. If you want to help hurting people, consider reading this book.
My Next 12:
13. Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel
“The Novel I’ve Discussed the Most With My Wife” Award for 2016 goes to this post-apocalyptic tale about a worldwide pandemic, a traveling symphony, the glories of Shakespeare, the pain of loss, the meaning of life, and the yearning for beauty. Why should you read this book? “Because survival is insufficient.” (58) The passage that stuck with me long after I finished the book details the aftermath and repercussions of the deadly outbreak:
“An incomplete list: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by. No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars. No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position— but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Rust blossomed and streaked. No more countries, all borders unmanned. No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space. No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.” (31-32)
And yet, even amidst such loss and absence, something glorious remains: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (57) I’m grateful for this beautiful book.
14. Moby Dick / Herman Melville
The best novel I read in 2016 was Melville’s classic. The characters are spectacular: Ismael, Queequeg, Starbuck, and the “all-destroying” white whale. But Captain Ahab steals the show. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness:
“Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! From all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (477)
15. A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube / Patrick Leigh Fermor
Have you ever daydreamed about backpacking across Europe? Well, I have. But after reading A Time of Gifts, now I just daydream about being Patrick Leigh Fermor instead. He penned this kaleidoscope of a book detailing his walking journey through pre-WWII Europe in the 1930s when he was only 19-years old. Reading Fermor is a surreal literary experience. His knowledge of language, architecture, art, geography and culture is astounding.
“I too heard the change in the bells and the croaking and the solitary owl’s note. But it was getting too dim to descry a figure, let alone a struck match, at the windows of the Archbishopric. A little earlier, sunset had kindled them as if the Palace were on fire. Now the sulphur, the crocus, the bright pink and the crimson had left the panes and drained away from the touzled but still unmoving cirrus they had reflected. But the river, paler still by contrast with the sombre merging of the woods, had lightened to a milky hue. A jade-green radiance had not yet abandoned the sky. The air itself, the branches, the flag-leaves, the willow-herb and the rushes were held for a space, before the unifying shadows should dissolve them, in a vernal and marvellous light like the bloom on a greengage. Low on the flood and almost immaterialised by this luminous moment, a heron sculled upstream, detectable mainly by sound and by the darker and slowly dissolving rings that the tips of its flight-feathers left on the water. A collusion of shadows had begun and soon only the lighter colour of the river would survive. Downstream in the dark, meanwhile, there was no hint of the full moon that would transform the scene later on. No-one else was left on the bridge and the few on the quay were all hastening the same way. Prised loose from the balustrade at last by a more compelling note from the belfries, I hastened to follow. I didn’t want to be late.” (314-315)⠀
16. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life / William Finnegan
I began reading this book about a writer’s life-long love affair with surfing and I simply couldn’t put it down. It’s absolutely glorious.
“A set rolled through, shining and roaring in the low winter afternoon sun, and my throat clogged with emotion– some nameless mess of joy, fear, love, lust, gratitude.” (356)
“Sloat looked to be at least five refrigerators high as I pulled up one Sunday afternoon in January. The waves breaking on the outside bar were difficult to see, though. The sun was shining, but the surf was generating a salt mist that filled the air on both sides of the Great Highway— a sharp-smelling haze like some essence from the bottom of the ocean. There was no wind, but gray plumes of spray rose nonetheless from the tops of the largest waves, lifted by the sheer mass and speed of their crests as they plunged. The inside bar was a maelstrom of dredging, midsized killer waves, their dark chocolate faces smeared with drifts of foam. The outside bar looked ill-defined, the swell confused, but the outside waves themselves were smooth and shiny, with clean peaks and sections looming randomly in the mist. Some of them looked ridable— loveliness amid lethality.” (388)
But don’t take my word for it. I’ve never even been surfing before. But my friend Bobby Jamieson has surfed a bunch. And he totally dug this book too. If you read his review, I wager you’ll want to read this book.
17. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt / Edmund Morris
18. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey / Candice Millard
The historical figure I chose to live with in 2016 was Theodore Roosevelt. I’d never read a biography of Teddy before, so I learned a lot. Mr. Roosevelt was quite the character. Here’s the one story from his storied life that will stick with me:
“Roosevelt, still famously energetic at fifty-four, greeted his admirers with characteristic vigor, pumping his left arm in the air like a windmill. His right arm, however, hung motionless at his side. The last time Roosevelt had given a speech—just two weeks earlier, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he had been shot in the chest by a thirty-six-year-old New York bartender named John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who feared that Roosevelt’s run for a third term was an effort to establish a monarchy in the United States. Incredibly, Roosevelt’s heavy army overcoat and the folded fifty-page manuscript and steel spectacle-case he carried in his right breast pocket had saved his life, but the bullet had plunged some five inches deep, lodging near his rib cage. That night, whether out of an earnest desire to deliver his message or merely an egotist’s love of drama, Roosevelt had insisted on delivering his speech to a terrified and transfixed audience. His coat unbuttoned to reveal a bloodstained shirt, and his speech held high so that all could see the two sinister-looking holes made by the assailant’s bullet, Roosevelt had shouted, ‘It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!'”
-Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 10.
I spent much of the year gobbling up as much TR material as I could get my hands on. By far, the best book on Roosevelt that I read was Edmund Morris’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography. Morris is quite the wordsmith. Check out his description of the dawn before the Battle of San Juan Hill:
“The first of July, 1898, which Roosevelt ever afterward called ‘the great day of my life,’ dawned to a fugato of bugles, phrase echoing phrase as a reveille sounded in the various camps. The morning was Elysian, with a pink sky lightening rapidly to pale, cloudless blue. Mists filled the basin below El Pozo, evaporating quickly as the air warmed, exposing first the crowns of royal palms, then the lower green of deciduous trees and vines. Hills rippled around the horizon to east, west, and north, like a violent backdrop. As the vapor burned away, the effect to Roosevelt was of shimmering curtains rising to disclose ‘an amphitheater for the battle.’ While his men got up he walked about calmly lathering his face, reassuring the many who had woken afraid.” (681)
Morris tells the history of one man who was really seven men: a naturalist, a writer, a lover, a hunter, a ranchman, a solider, and a politician. And this multifaceted man had an electric personality: “You go to the White House,” writes Richard Washburn Child, “you shake hands with Roosevelt and hear him talk– and then you go home to wring the personality out of your clothes.”
And early on in the book you learn about Teddy’s insatiable appetite for books:
“At about ten o’clock the First Lady will rise and kiss her husband good night. He will continue to read in the light of a student lamp, peering through his one good eye (the other is almost blind) at the book held inches from his nose, flicking over the pages at a rate of two or three a minute. This is the time of the day he loves best. ‘Reading with me is a disease.’ He succumbs to it so totally— on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door— that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarize the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text. The President manages to get through at least one book a day even when he is busy. Owen Wister has lent him a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. ‘Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance that it contained.’ On evenings like this, when he has no official entertaining to do, Roosevelt will read two or three books entire. His appetite for titles is omnivorous and insatiable, ranging from the the Histories of Thucydides to the Tales of Uncle Remus. Reading, as he has explained to Trevelyan, is for him the purest imaginative therapy. In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (‘until I could stand them no longer’), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jörn Uhl, ‘a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,’ and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes, on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history. The richness of Roosevelt’s knowledge causes a continuous process of cross-fertilization to go on in his mind. Standing with candle in hand at a baptismal service in Santa Fe, he reflects that his ancestors, and those of the child’s Mexican father, ‘doubtless fought in the Netherlands in the days of Alva and Parma.’ Watching a group of American sailors joke about bedbugs in the Navy, he is reminded of the freedom of comment traditionally allowed to Roman legionnaires after battle. Trying to persuade Congress to adopt a system of simplified spelling in Government documents, he unself-consciously cites a treatise on the subject published in the time of Cromwell. Tonight the President will bury himself, perhaps, in two volumes Mrs. Lodge has just sent him for review: Gissing’s Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, and The Greek View of Life, by Lowes Dickinson. He will be struck, as he peruses the latter, by interesting parallels between the Periclean attitude toward women and that of presentday Japan, and will make a mental note to write to Mrs. Lodge about it. He may also read, with alternate approval and disapproval, two articles on Mormonism in the latest issue of Outlook. A five-thousand-word essay on “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in this month’s Century magazine will not detain him long, since he is himself the author. His method of reading periodicals is somewhat unusual: each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor. When both magazines have been thus reduced to a pile of crumpled paper, Roosevelt will leap from his rocking-chair and march down the corridor. Slowing his pace at the door of the presidential suite, he will tiptoe in, brush the famous teeth with only a moderate amount of noise, and pull on his blue-striped pajamas. Beside his pillow he will deposit a large, precautionary revolver. His last act, after turning down the lamp and climbing into bed, will be to unclip his pince-nez and rub the reddened bridge of his nose. Then, there being nothing further to do, Theodore Roosevelt will energetically fall asleep.” (xxxii-xxxiv)
And then there’s also the fascinating bit about Roosevelt’s photographic memory:
“Theodore Roosevelt’s memory can, in the opinion of the historian George Otto Trevelyan, be compared with the legendary mechanism of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Authors are embarrassed, during Presidential audiences, to hear long quotes from their works which they themselves have forgotten. Congressmen know that it is useless to contest him on facts and figures. He astonishes the diplomat Count Albert Apponyi by reciting, almost verbatim, a long piece of Hungarian historical literature: when the Count expresses surprise, Roosevelt says he has neither seen nor thought of the document in twenty years. Asked to explain a similar performance before a delegation of Chinese, Roosevelt explains mildly: ‘I remembered a book that I had read some time ago, and as I talked the pages of the book came before my eyes.’ The pages of his speeches similarly swim before him, although he seems to be speaking impromptu. When confronted with a face he does not instantly recall, he will put a hand over his eyes until it appears before him in its previous context.” (xxx)
19. Hillbilly Elegy / J.D. Vance
One of the timeliest reads of 2016 was this deeply moving memoir by J.D. Vance.
“Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abuse their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in the story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way– both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.” (9)
20. All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr
Imagine what it’s like to be blind. Now imagine what it would be like to be blind and to live in a war zone that’s occupied by Nazis and under constant Allied bombardment. That’s the setting where we meet the blind heroine of this beautiful and moving story, Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Though blind, she sees.
21. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America / Jill Leovy
This is an unforgettable and insightful book about a complicated set of life and death issues.
“This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.” (8)
Whatever you make of the author’s thesis, the relentless persistence of the book’s protagonist, Detective John Skaggs, is awe-inspiring.
22. The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State / Lawrence Wright
23. ISIS: A History / Fawaz Gerges
I took a trip to visit some dear friends in Iraq earlier this year. Given the state of unrest and fighting that has engulfed this part of the world, I wanted to learn more about Islam, terrorism, and US foreign policy. So I spent 2016 doing a deep dive on these issues, with a special focus on Iraq. God has grown my heart for this war-ravaged land and despite my doubts about any immediate prospects for lasting peace, I am certainly hopeful and prayerful for the furtherance of the gospel in Iraq.
Lawrence Wright has written a good bit about terrorism for the New Yorker and his book, The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, pulls together the best of his material into one volume.
“This age of terror will end one day, but whether our society can restore the feeling of freedom that once was our birthright is hard to predict. The security state that is grown up since 9/11 has transformed our culture; and yes, we have a needed the protection. We are often reminded that we must ‘never forget’ what happened on that fateful day. But if we fail to keep in mind the country we were before 9/11, we may never steer in that direction again. In that case, the terrorists really will have won.” (350)
His chapter about FBI agent, John O’Neil, entitled “The Counter-Terrorist,” is just haunting. Other books worth mentioning are:
Warrick helpfully explains ISIS’s past. In his lucidly-written book, ISIS: A History, Fawaz Gerges looks forward at ISIS’s future. I feel like I understand a great deal more about the current crisis in Syria after reading this book.
“What this reformation entails is an intellectual revolution, a cognitive or epistemological rupture with the dominant religious and historical scripts and narratives about the past, as some Arab writers, like Abdullah al-‘ Arwi, George Tarabishi, and others, argue, a cultural revolution that transforms state and society. Arab intellectuals are fully aware of the derailed efforts by al-Nahda and renaissance pioneers who called for such ‘reformation’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While there is no assurance of success, this complex, generational struggle must be fought and won regardless of how long it will take. Salafi-jihadists like ISIS must be denied the doctrinal and theological oxygen that nourishes their movement. Ideas are the first line of defense against the Salafi-jihadist nihilistic ideology and the final nail in its coffin. Without this revolution in ideas, the narrative and brand of Salafi-jihadism, of which ISIS is the most recent iteration, will continue to prevail in the Arab-Islamic world.” (292)
24. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit / P.G. Wodehouse
I’ve gotten into the delightful habit of reading at least one volume of Wodehouse every year. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit did not disappoint. My favorite line in the book: “Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice.” (29) Wodehouse’s prose is always colorful and endlessly entertaining. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:
- “He was looking definitely piqued, like a diner in a restaurant who has bitten into a bad oyster.” (26)
- “Our relations had always been chummy to the last drop.” (72)
- “No hostess wants a Hamlet on the premises.” (73)
- “What if he does think you the world’s premier louse? Don’t we all?”
- “Did you notice how he looked when he said ‘Florence’? Like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.” (85)
- “And with these words he pranced off like a mustang.” (93)
- “He had all the earmarks of one about whom Love had twined its silken fetters.” (93)
- “She was madder than a wet hen.” (94)
- “What girl would not be delighted who finds herself unexpectedly free from a man with a pink face and a head that looks as if it had been blown up with a bicycle pump?” (94)
- “My ears were sticking up like a wirehaired terrier’s.” (99)
- “His demeanor throughout was that of a homicidal deaf mute.” (102)
- “Uncle Tom is a great lad for prowling in the garden.” (103)
- “Bertie, you revolting object, that mustache of yours is the most obscene thing I ever saw outside a nightmare. It seems to take one straight into another and a dreadful world. What made you commit this rash act?” (110)
- “‘Proceed, Jeeves.’ He did so, turning now to Aunt Dahlia, who was gazing at him like a bear about to receive a bun.” (119)
- “I emerged like a cork out of a bottle.” (134)
- “I had just finished tucking away a refreshing scrambled eggs and coffee, when the door opened as if a hurricane had hit it and Aunt Dahlia came pirouetting in.” (148)
- “Before my eyes she wilted like a wet sock.” (150)
- “I am unable to discern in you the slightest vestige of charm, the smallest trace of any quality that could reasonably be expected to appeal to a girl like Florence.” (157)
- “The Woosters do not desert their aunts in their time of need.” (160)“Suddenly a thought came like a full-blown nose, flushing the brow.” (160)
- “Aunt Dahlia was in the hall, pacing up and down like a distraught tigress.” (164)
- “I’m in agony. I feel as if I’d swallowed a couple of wild cats.” (186)
- “I wilted like a salted snail.” (188)
- “Emotion overcame her, and she grabbed at my arm again. It was like being bitten by an alligator.” (200)
- “She was staring at The Times, which was what she had drawn in the distribution of the morning journals, in much the same manner as a resident of India would have stared at a cobra, had he found it nestling in his bath tub.” (208)
My Final 12:
25. The Name of the Wind / Patrick Rothfuss
I stumbled upon this richly textured fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, and I was hooked. It’s sort of like LOTR and Harry Potter blended together with a dash of Lev Grossman and Charles Dickens sprinkled on top combined with lots of cool fights, mysterious libraries, and dangerous creatures. This story has all the makings of a huge blockbuster movie. The main character is named Kvothe and he’s not someone you want to mess with:
“I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them. But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant ‘to know.’ I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned. I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.” (52)
As entertaining as Kvothe is, even in the happy moments of the book, there’s also an omnipresent sense of foreboding.
“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The first part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been horses stabled in the barn they would have stamped and champed and broken it to pieces. If there had been a crowd of guests, even a handful of guests bedded down for the night, their restless breathing and mingled snores would have gently thawed the silence like a warm spring wind. If there had been music… but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained. Inside the Waystone a man huddled in his deep, sweet-smelling bed. Motionless, waiting for sleep, he lay wide-eyed in the dark. In doing this he added a small, frightened silence to the larger, hollow one. They made an alloy of sorts, a harmony. The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the thick stone walls of the empty taproom and in the flat, grey metal of the sword that hung behind the bar. It was in the dim candlelight that filled an upstairs room with dancing shadows. It was in the mad pattern of a crumpled memoir that lay fallen and unforgotten atop the desk. And it was in the hands of the man who sat there, pointedly ignoring the pages he had written and discarded long ago. The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the weary calm that comes from knowing many things. The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.” (662)
What a year for baseball. We witnessed an unforgettable Cubs victory in what will go down in history as one of the most entertaining final games in World Series history. While I was happy for Cubs fans and sad for Cleveland fans, my thoughts were in Atlanta. As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, the 2016 season was a smorgasbord of defeat. The Bravos finished in last place in the division and only the lowly Twins had a worse league record. And so I plunged myself into the past, remembering the glorious baseball summers of yesteryear. The best baseball book I read in 2016 is an illustrated history created by Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. This is how the book opens:
“It measures just 9 inches in circumference, weighs only about 5 ounces, and it made of cork wound with woolen yarn, covered with two layers of cowhide, and stitched by hand precisely 216 times. It travels 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home–and it can cover that distance at nearly 100 miles an hour. Along the way it can be made to twist, spin, curve, wobble, rise, or fall away. The bat is made of turned ash, less than 42 inches long, not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter. The batter has only a few thousandths of a second to decide to hit the ball. And yet the men who fail seven times out of ten are considered the game’s greatest heroes. It is played everywhere. In parks and playground and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers fields. By small children and by old men. By raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game where the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the hard facts of autumn. Americans have played baseball for more than 200 years, while they conquered a continent, warred with one another and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights and the meaning of freedom. At the games’s heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating and has excluded as many as it has included; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game, where each player is measured by the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.” (xviii)
That’s glorious, isn’t it? The book is sprinkled with excerpts from the likes of Thomas Boswell, Robert Creamer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, George Will, Walt Whitman, Buck O’Neill, and Ted Williams. The introductory essay by Roger Angell is superb. It was so good that I devoured Angell’s collection The Summer Game. I also enjoyed Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. If you can find an audiobook version of this book, you’ll discover a treasure. It’s the actual recordings of Ritter interviewing elderly ballplayers. Great stuff.
What did I learn through immersing myself in the glories of baseball’s past? I think it’s a lesson that Cubs fans know all too well. Or maybe something they used to know.
“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.”
-Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), xii.
29. Drone: Remote Control Warfare / Hugh Gusterson
Drones are a big deal. I heard Gusterson do an interview with MIT Press (or read it here) and it made me want to read his book. Drones aren’t going away any time soon. “Less than fifteen years after the first use of an armed drone by the United States, over 50 percent of the pilots being trained by the U.S. Air Force are drone pilots, and the proportion of remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. fleet went from 5 percent in 2005 to 31 percent by 2012.” (21) This book made me ponder the impact of what Gusterson calls “Remote Intimacy.”
“Remote Intimacy examines the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance in the relationship between drone operators and their targets that can evolve over days of remote surveillance, and looks at what it is like to kill someone from over seven thousand miles away while watching as if close up on screen, whether it is easier or harder to kill someone this way than on the physical battlefield, and why drone operators seem to have high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder.” (7-8)
Did you catch that? Drone operators have high rates of PTSD. The book doesn’t just cover the moral implications of drone warfare. Gusterson begins the book by detailing the technical specs of US military drones:
“A little longer than the average station wagon, and weighing just 1,130 pounds, the Predator is surprisingly small. With its modified snowmobile engine it has a maximum speed of 135 mph, although it usually flies at speeds under 100 mph. The Predator can fly as high as 25,000 feet but usually is operated at 10,000 to 15,000 feet so that it gets better video imagery. It can stay aloft for about 24 hours at a time. About a quarter of the cost of the Predator goes into the ‘Ball,’ which is a rotating sensor ball that is mounted under the nose of the plane. It carries daylight cameras and infrared cameras that can pick up the outline of bodies at night, as well as equipment that scans the ground for cell phone signals, logging sim cards on the ground below. The cameras are said to be able to read a license plate from two miles up, and they feed data streams to controllers in different locations. Even filming from two miles up, the camera has a lens so powerful it feels like a hawk hovering at 100 feet. The Predator is typically equipped with two Hellfire missiles for use against targets on the ground. Each missile costs around $ 70,000. The Predator flashes an infrared beam to ‘light up’ or ‘sparkle’ targets below that are then attacked by the Predator’s missiles, by other planes, or by soldiers on the ground. These targets can be as small as individual insurgents who are fleeing an attack (what the U.S. military refers to as ‘squirters’), although the blast radius of a Hellfire missile is reportedly fifteen to twenty meters.. The Reaper, a larger second-generation armed drone, can fly twice as fast as the Predator, go twice as high, and carry eight times as much ordnance. Both Predators and Reapers are launched from bases near the areas they patrol. The operation of a drone requires about 170 people in multiple locations. The people with their hands on the controls are the tip of a spear that extends from ground crews in Middle Eastern deserts to generals and lawyers in air-conditioned control rooms in the United States.” (19-21)
30. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets / David Simon
Back in 1988, there were 234 murders in the city of Baltimore. David Simon was the first reporter ever to be given unlimited access to Baltimore’s homicide unit. He was embedded with three homicide squads for an entire year. This book is the fruit of his front-row research. It’s a crime classic for good reason.
31. Seven Brief Lessons in Physics / Carlo Rovelli
I bet your physics professor in college didn’t explain physics this beautifully. Not only was this slim volume packed with mind-bending facts, I was also moved by Rovelli’s tone of humility and awestruck wonder that pervaded the book. He writes:
“Our knowledge of the world continues to grow. There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.” (80)
32. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work / Mason Currey
This book is brilliant collection of the daily habits of brilliant people. Here were my favorite entries:
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): “Kierkegaard had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee: Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid. The process was scarcely finished before the syrupy stimulant disappeared into the magister’s stomach, where it mingled with the sherry he had consumed earlier to produce additional energy that percolated up into his seething and bubbling brain—which in any case had already been so productive all day that in the half-light visitors could still notice the tingling and throbbing in the overworked fingers when they grasped the slender handle of the cup.
Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964): After being diagnosed with lupus in 1951 and told she would live only another four years, O’Connor returned to her native Georgia and moved in with her mother at the family farm in rural Andalusia. Years earlier, a writing instructor had advised O’Connor to set aside a certain number of hours each day to write, and she had taken his advice to heart; back in Georgia she came to believe, as she wrote to a friend, that ‘routine is a condition of survival.’ A devout Catholic, O’Connor began each day at 6:00 A.M. with morning prayers from her copy of A Short Breviary. Then she joined her mother in the kitchen, where they would share a Thermos of coffee while listening to the weather report on the radio. Morning mass was at 7:00, a short drive into town at the Sacred Heart. Her religious obligations fulfilled, O’Connor would turn to her writing, shutting herself away between 9:00 and noon for her daily three hours, which would typically yield three pages—although, she told a reporter, ‘I may tear it all to pieces the next day.’ By the afternoon, O’Connor’s energy was spent—the lupus caused her to tire early and experience flulike symptoms and mental fogginess as the day wore on. She passed these hours receiving visitors on the porch and pursuing her hobbies of painting and raising birds—peacocks, which she loved and often incorporated into her stories, as well as ducks, hens, and geese. By sundown she was ready for bed; ‘I go to bed at nine and am always glad to get there,’ she wrote. Before bedtime she might recite another prayer from her Breviary, but her usual nighttime reading was a seven-hundred-page volume of Thomas Aquinas. ‘I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder,’ she said.
Philip Roth (b. 1933): “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare,” Roth said in 1987. Coal mining is hard work. This is a nightmare.… There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn’t in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There is a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning—this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens—and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”
This book sort of freaked me out. Mainly because the author isn’t some weirdo who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Marc Goodman has been a Resident Futurist for the FBI and a senior adviser to Interpol. And he’s very concerned.
“In a world in which all of our critical systems and infrastructures are run by computers, it would be easy to dismiss our profound technological insecurity as just a computing problem. But we don’t just have an IT problem. Because technology is woven through the entire fabric of our modern lives, we also have a social problem, a personal problem, a financial problem, a health-care problem, a manufacturing problem, a public safety problem, a government problem, a governance problem, a transportation problem, an energy problem, a privacy problem, and a human rights problem. We have no choice but to win this battle for the very soul of our own technologies because frankly the alternative is too horrible to consider. This must be our call to action. Accordingly, now is the time to completely reevaluate all that we take for granted in this modern technological world and question our dependence on the ubiquitous machines that so few of us understand. We do this not out of blind technophobia nor in deference to Luddite ancestors but as a commonsensical measure, fully appreciating the vast positive potential these exponential technologies portend. The innovation cannot be stopped, and the technological changes are coming faster and faster. We’ve reached an inflection point, a punctuated moment in time that demands our immediate and greatest possible attention.” (498)
34. Overview: A New Perspective of Earth / Benjamin Grant
The most gorgeous book I read in 2016 is Overview, which features amazing images from the Daily Overview account. Check out some of the pictures here or here. These satellite images will make you feel very small and remind you that the Creator and Upholder of all things is really big. My three kiddos loved this book.
“When we are removed from our usual line of sight on the Earth’s surface, we can see things differently. We can see our world completely.” (20)
35. Life on a Little-Known Planet / Howard Ensign Evans
I read an interview with the great David McCullough where he was asked, “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” McCullough’s answer intrigued me: “A book I keep going back to for the sheer pleasure of the writing, as well as all it brings to life about a subject I might otherwise have taken no interest in whatever, is “Life on a Little-Known Planet,” by Howard Ensign Evans, which is all about insects.” Really?! Well, if an out-of-print book about a biologist’s view of insects and their world is good enough for David McCullough, then surely it’s good enough for me. My favorite chapter, “In Defense of Magic: The Story of Fireflies” is worth the price of the book.
“Magic in the sense of something inciting wonder is here to stay; or if it is not, man will have been vastly diminished by its loss. What can rival a twilit meadow rich with the essence of June and spangled with fireflies? Here is magic, and the joy of pursuing through grass just touched with early dew a light now here, now there, now gone. Or of collecting several in a bottle and taking them indoors for illumination; or of tying one lightly with a thread to one’s clothing, as natives of some tropical countries are reported to do at fiesta time. As children, we used to call them lightning bugs; and wingless kinds that emit a steady light from the ground are called glowworms in English-speaking countries wherever they occur. In fact fireflies are neither flies nor bugs nor worms, but soft-bodied beetles called Lampyridae, a name based on an old Greek word that also evolved into our word ‘lamp’… Adult fireflies possess the most complex light organs known to man, and these organs are still far from fully understood. Despite the intensity of the light they produce, the amount of heat is negligible. Only in very recent years has man developed chemical light-producing systems that rival that of the firefly in efficiency.” (103, 104)
Amazing. I’ll never look at a lightning bug on a summer night the same way again.
36. Various Volumes of Poetry:
Time spent with good poets is time well spent. I hung out with George Herbert (a constant companion), Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Luci Shaw, Ben Palpant. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of poems pulled together by Czeslaw Milosz, aptly entitled A Book of Luminous Things. The two contemporary poets that I enjoyed the most this year were Dana Gioia and A.E. Stallings. You might be wondering, “Why bother with poetry?” I agree with the assessment of James Parker:
“If you’re a certain kind of reader, with a certain kind of brain, you’re always on the lookout for the poem that will save your life. Existence heaps itself upon you; your tongue thickens and your thoughts get cluttered. But you keep a muddy eye trained on the world’s poetry portals, the places where the poems come flapping through, because you know that a line, a rhyme, a verb can reboot your internal chitchat and zap you out of all your encrustations. You know that this is the poet’s job, in the end: to remind you—oh, the cheesiness, but oh, the urgency—how to be alive.”
Poets remind us of the glories of being alive in this beautifully strange and God-spoke world. Luci Shaw once said: “A poem is a little lens through which we can examine in close range some of the ‘insignificant’ details of the universe, a miniature window on the world. In such small works of art the poet is lending you, the reader, her eyes in hopes that your own eyes will be captivated by things you’ve never noticed before.” Good poems help us notice and remember what would impoverish us to forget.
The poem that captured 2016 for me was this one by A.E. Stallings. May the Lord grant us all the grace of growing in empathy, in tender-hearted brotherly love, and in humility of mind.
My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
As we dodge the coast-guard light,
And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,
And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash
And less buoyant.
I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,
Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor
In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.
Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!
A few years ago I created an advent devotional for my family. Folks have asked for a copy of it over the years, so I’m happy to share it here. Enjoy!
“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between Taste and Judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.
For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”
–W. H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, Volume VI: Prose: 1969-1973, Ed. Edward Mendelson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 222.